Statutes of Limitations Are Rendered Inapplicable to War Crimes Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The United Nations General Assembly ratified the Convention on the Non-Applicability of Statutory Limitations to War Crimes and Crimes Against Humanity, thereby establishing that no war criminal could hope to escape justice simply by remaining in hiding for a finite period of time.

Summary of Event

War crimes tribunals have been used throughout history to compel states to follow existing laws of warfare. The war crimes tribunals in Nuremberg and Tokyo and the 1949 Geneva Conventions were examples of international efforts to expand the scope of international law after World War II. The tremendous suffering of both combatants and civilians during the war clearly aroused international interest in protecting human rights. Statements of the Allied leaders at Yalta and Potsdam clearly indicated that the Allied Powers intended to pursue individuals responsible for war crimes and crimes against humanity. In its preamble, the United Nations Charter stated that the protection of fundamental human rights and justice were fundamental goals of the organization. The barbarous actions of Germany in its persecution of European Jews were an indication that rules of state and individual conduct in war had .to be strengthened. War crimes;statutes of limitations Statutes of limitations United Nations;war crimes Convention on the Non-Applicability of Statutory Limitations to War Crimes and Crimes Against Humanity (1968)[Convention on the Nonapplicability of Statutory Limitations to War Crimes and Crimes Against Humanity] [kw]Statutes of Limitations Are Rendered Inapplicable to War Crimes (Nov. 26, 1968) [kw]War Crimes, Statutes of Limitations Are Rendered Inapplicable to (Nov. 26, 1968) War crimes;statutes of limitations Statutes of limitations United Nations;war crimes Convention on the Non-Applicability of Statutory Limitations to War Crimes and Crimes Against Humanity (1968)[Convention on the Nonapplicability of Statutory Limitations to War Crimes and Crimes Against Humanity] [g]North America;Nov. 26, 1968: Statutes of Limitations Are Rendered Inapplicable to War Crimes[10040] [g]United States;Nov. 26, 1968: Statutes of Limitations Are Rendered Inapplicable to War Crimes[10040] [c]United Nations;Nov. 26, 1968: Statutes of Limitations Are Rendered Inapplicable to War Crimes[10040] [c]Diplomacy and international relations;Nov. 26, 1968: Statutes of Limitations Are Rendered Inapplicable to War Crimes[10040] [c]Atrocities and war crimes;Nov. 26, 1968: Statutes of Limitations Are Rendered Inapplicable to War Crimes[10040] Thant, U [p]Thant, U;war crimes

Unable to establish an international criminal court of justice after the war, the United Nations gave states jurisdiction to prosecute in municipal courts individuals charged with war crimes. The 1949 Geneva Conventions Geneva Conventions for the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War required each signatory to search for persons alleged to have committed, or to have ordered to be committed, war crimes, and to bring such persons, regardless of their nationality, before its own courts. The origins of the 1968 U.N. convention can be found in the efforts of the Polish delegation to the U.N. Commission on Human Rights. The Polish delegation introduced resolutions that drew attention to the debate in the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) over the applicability of statutes of limitations for persons accused of war crimes.

In 1965, the West German Bundestag passed a resolution that excluded the period from May, 1945, to December, 1949, from statute-of-limitations protections for all persons accused of serious crimes. The 1965 resolution extended the period in which persons accused of crimes could be prosecuted by the German government. The Polish delegation expressed concern that under German law, all legal proceedings against accused war criminals would be stopped in December, 1969. This was troubling to many states in 1965, because it was estimated that although sixty-one hundred individuals had been convicted in West German courts for Nazi war crimes since 1945, as many as eighteen thousand individuals suspected of war crimes remained at large.

To many member states of the United Nations, the application of statute-of-limitations protection to accused war criminals appeared to contradict the intent of the 1948 Genocide Convention Genocide Convention, U.N. (1948) . The General Assembly declared in a 1946 resolution that genocide is always a crime under international law. The efforts of the Polish delegation led the Commission on Human Rights to ask U.N. secretary-general U Thant to begin examining laws that would hinder the prosecution of accused war criminals. The report of the secretary-general and the efforts of the Economic and Social Council culminated in a draft proposal of the convention on the nonapplicability of statutory limitations to war crimes and crimes against humanity in 1968.

The convention adopted the definition of war crimes established during the military tribunal at Nuremberg in 1946 and affirmed in the Geneva Conventions of 1949. The Nuremberg Principles Nuremberg Principles adopted by the General Assembly stated that “any person who commits an act which constitutes a crime under international law is responsible therefor and liable to punishment.” Article 6 of the Charter of the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg had previously defined war crimes as violations of the laws or customs of war. Such violations included murder, ill treatment, or deportation to slave labor of civilian populations in occupied territory; murder or ill treatment of prisoners of war; killing of hostages; plunder of public or private property; wanton destruction of cities, towns, or villages; or devastation not justified by military necessity.

Although some United Nations members expressed reservations about incorporating the Nuremberg Principles into the 1968 convention, attempts to alter the definition of war crimes were strongly opposed by many members of the General Assembly. Article 1 of the convention also included the United Nations definitions of crimes against humanity defined in the Nuremberg Charter. The United Nations had accepted these definitions in the 1948 Genocide Convention. The only addition to the category of crimes against humanity was the addition of the United Nations resolution condemning apartheid, the policy of racial discrimination by the government of South Africa.

While there was general agreement that statutory limitations clauses existing in municipal law should not shield individuals from prosecution, a number of states strongly objected to provisions of the U.N. draft proposal. The four-year debate in the United Nations over the wording of the convention symbolized the tremendous differences in opinion a number of states had concerning the eleven articles of the convention. One of the most fundamental issues surrounding the convention was whether the exemption of statutory limitations to war criminals already existed in international law.

The United Kingdom and the United States took the position that the nonapplicability of statutes of limitations for war criminals already existed in international law. The Soviet Union and its allies rejected this position and lobbied to strike any language from the convention that would have established that existing international law had addressed this issue. As the debate over the convention continued, many in the West began to characterize the convention as an attempt by Eastern European states and the Soviet Union to embarrass the Federal Republic of Germany by insinuating that it had not vigorously pursued individuals linked to atrocities during World War II.

The Convention on Non-Applicability of Statutory Limitations to War Crimes and Crimes Against Humanity was adopted by the General Assembly on November 26, 1968, with more opposing votes than any previous human rights convention: Fifty-eight states approved its adoption, seven opposed it, and thirty-six abstained from voting. Israel, Czechoslovakia, Poland, and the Soviet Union were some of the states that supported the convention. The United States, the United Kingdom, and South Africa voted against the convention. Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Uruguay, and Venezuela were among the states that abstained from voting.

Significance

The 1968 convention was important in the history of international law, because, for the first time, an international convention clearly stated that crimes against humanity by individuals had no statute of limitations. The 1968 convention’s treatment of the issue of retroactivity has been criticized because it failed to address the rights of individuals accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity. The United States opposed the convention because of concerns about what it saw as political rather than legal objectives in not clearly addressing how the convention would address existing laws of various states.

The convention’s effect on international human rights is difficult to assess because of the nature of the offenses that the convention addresses. While it is a fundamental tenet of criminal law that a defendant is entitled to full protection under the laws of the state, critics of the convention have questioned whether individuals accused of crimes during war were provided the same rights as persons accused of other types of crime. The convention’s main provisions required all states party to the convention to eliminate all legal statutes that provide statutory limitations protection to individuals accused of war crimes, crimes against humanity during peacetime, or acts related to the policy of apartheid.

Many have also expressed disappointment with international efforts to bring to justice individuals responsible for crimes against humanity. The provisions of the Genocide Convention have been used only two times in the postwar period. The inability to define genocide clearly has led to obstacles when national courts have attempted to punish individuals accused of international crimes. An example of this difficulty was the trial and execution of Marcias Nguema Nguema, Marcias , the former leader of Equatorial Guinea. After murdering a number of individuals, he was overthrown and found guilty of genocide in 1979. A later report by the International Commission of Jurists found that although mass murder was clearly proven, Marcias was wrongly convicted of genocide, because there was no compelling evidence to prove intentional destruction of racial, ethnic, or religious groups.

The absence of an international tribunal to prosecute war criminals for many years after World War II made it possible for many to avoid prosecution by finding sanctuary in other countries. The number of individuals who actually stood trial for crimes against humanity did not significantly change after the adoption of the 1968 convention. The various resolutions adopted by the United Nations and the attention given to the apprehension and punishment of war criminals found in the 1968 convention has not always been matched by U.N. actions to seek out individuals responsible for war crimes. Moreover, many of the states that objected to the language of the original resolution have refused to become signatories to the 1968 convention. Because universal acceptance of the convention never occurred, the effect of this convention on national and international law since 1968 was limited. War crimes;statutes of limitations Statutes of limitations United Nations;war crimes Convention on the Non-Applicability of Statutory Limitations to War Crimes and Crimes Against Humanity (1968)[Convention on the Nonapplicability of Statutory Limitations to War Crimes and Crimes Against Humanity]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Beigbeder, Yves. International Justice Against Impunity: Progress and New Challenges. Boston: M. Nijhoff, 2005. Study of the state of international law and war crime prosecutions in the early twenty-first century. Includes discussions of the International Criminal Court and the war crime tribunals in Yugoslavia and Rwanda.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Clausnitzer, Martin. “The Statute of Limitations for Murder in the Federal Republic of Germany.” International and Comparative Law Quarterly 29 (April-July, 1980): 473-479. Examines the debate in Germany over the thirty-year limitation for murder in Germany and its effect on Nazi war criminals still at large. Includes notations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Falk, Richard, Gabriel Kolko, and Robert Jay Lifton, eds. Crimes of War. New York: Random House, 1971. A collection of essays and documents that examine the legal framework of various laws of war. Index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Green, Leslie C. “Human Rights and the Law of Armed Conflict.” In Essays on the Modern Law of War. Dobbs Ferry, N.Y.: Transnational, 1984. A very readable account of the historical development of laws of warfare. Although it does not specifically address the 1968 resolution, it is a valuable introduction to the subject of human rights and warfare.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">“Human Rights-Actions of the Third Committee.” U.N. Monthly Chronicle 5 (November, 1968). A brief account of the debate in the Social, Humanitarian, and Cultural Committee over the draft convention on the nonapplicability of statutory limitations on war crimes. Includes text of the resolution and individual countries’ votes on the convention.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kuper, Leo. The Prevention of Genocide. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1985. An examination of the United Nations and its implementation of the 1948 Genocide Convention. Includes notations, appendixes, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Miller, Robert H. “The Convention on the Non-Applicability of Statutory Limitations to War Crimes and Crimes Against Humanity.” American Journal of International Law 65, no. 3 (1971): 467-501. An excellent treatment of the subject written by a former United Nations official. One of the best sources on the origins of and United Nations debate over the 1968 convention. Includes notations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Simpson, Gerry, ed. War Crimes Law. 2 vols. Burlington, Vt.: Ashgate/Dartmouth, 2004. Extensive primer on the international law governing war crimes and war-crime prosecution. Bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tolley, Howard, Jr. The U.N. Commission on Human Rights. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1986. A comprehensive history of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights and its impact on international politics after World War II. Includes notations, tables, illustrations, appendixes, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">United Nations Department of Public Information. The United Nations and Human Rights. New York: United Nations, 1984. An account of the United Nations efforts to encourage the protection of human rights. Includes appendix and index.

Japanese General Yamashita Is Convicted of War Crimes

Establishment of the International Court of Justice

United Nations Adopts Convention on Genocide

United Nations Adopts the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Eichmann Is Tried for War Crimes

United Nations Condemns Racial Discrimination

United Nations Covenant on Civil and Political Rights Is Adopted

Proclamation of Tehran Sets Human Rights Goals

Categories: History Content